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January 22, 2005

Involved Father Good, No Father Fine?

D.C. lawyer and author Lee Waltzer had an interesting exchange with Maggie Gallagher on Marriage Debate last week on the topic of preference for married couples in adoption (read down from here). In the midst of the back-and-forth, Waltzer made a statement that resonates oddly:

I think one thing that you ignore in these discussions is how much our concepts of parenting and parenthood are indeed social constructs. The way we raise children, and relate to them, today is much different from a century or two ago, let alone across cultures. There are plenty of mothers out there who do not ascribe to "traditional" concepts of motherhood, and the same goes for fathers and fatherhood -- this is a good thing actually. It's only a few decades back that fathers had very little to do with raising children whereas today, it is socially expected for fathers to be involved.

The post in which this generalization appears begins with the minimization of a belief that isn't appreciably different:

There are some situations where a child would definitely benefit from having a mom AND a dad.

Is it a good thing that paternal involvement is expected, or are there only "some situations" in which a father is even necessary? My sense is that there's more to this juxtaposition than I've managed to unravel, but even at first glance, it demands clarification.

Rational conservatives have no illusion that parenting and parenthood cannot be constructed in various ways, but that fact tells us nothing about what the various results will be — or even which results we ought to prefer. Since mutable social constructs affect us all — guiding most especially those without the background to comprehend or the resources to accommodate permutations — it behooves us to avoid justifying effects that are merely acceptable by citing contradictory effects that are desirable.

In other words, it may be the case (although I'm not entirely convinced) that fathers of old were significantly less involved in their children's lives. It may also be the case (although I'm far from convinced) that some children experience only limited harm for having lacked fathers altogether. However, when judging differences between the here-and-now and "a century or two ago, let alone across cultures," we must consider the possibility that fathers who there-and-then would have been inadequately involved are now simply gone, and that change has wrought only incremental increases among the class of fathers who were already involved.

Change is not always "a good thing actually."

Posted by Justin Katz at January 22, 2005 5:20 PM
Marriage & Family

Phrasing the father’s role in terms of ‘involvement’ misses the point. Ask the more serious question that so many children cannot answer in the affirmative: Do you know who your father is?

With either sex, children benefit tremendously from simply being able to look at a man and think: "That man is my father. He is married to my mother. He loves me. He loves my mother. He takes care of me. He will protect me in a crisis. When I grow up I want to look like him / marry a man like him."

We live in an age that denies millions of children that fundamental reassurance. That fact should be the focus of the marriage debate. Children enjoy attention and affection, but their real needs run much deeper.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at January 24, 2005 2:22 PM